Bioethicists: dust off your resumes


Now that President Donald Trump has backed out of the Paris Climate Change agreement, employment prospects for bioethicists may pick up. Let me explain.

The boundaries of bioethics are very elastic, and on some maps they include care for the natural environment. I would predict that in the measure that scientists lose faith in a political solution to global warming, some will back geoengineering projects to cool the planet.

These include tactics such as injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere, dumping iron filings into the sea to promote algal blooms, and machines to capture carbon dioxide. These involve significant risk and place great power in the calculations of technocrats. They need to be studied very carefully. As University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert said a few years ago, “I see lots [of geoengineering ideas] that are feasible but they all terrify me.”

A 2010 conference on the ethics of climate intervention at Asilomar, in California, addressed some of these issues using principles drawn from the famous Belmont principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-malificence and justice. And who knows more about these than bioethicists? Dust off those resumés. 

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Sorry for the delay


I can't say that I agree with Nietzsche on everything, but he was onto something when he wrote, "what does not kill a database makes it stronger". 

We were hit by a bug over the weekend and this mini-Götterdämmerung  has delayed the newsletter. But soon, touch wood, it will be stronger than ever. Thanks, Friedrich. 

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If there is a market, let’s legalise and regulate it


The Economist is the world’s best news magazine. Its stylish, intelligent and well-informed coverage has made it the Bible of the global elite. “I used to think. Now I just read The Economist,” the former CEO of Oracle, Larry Ellison, once said.

Part of its appeal is its ideological consistency. Ever since 1843 The Economist has argued that aim of public policy should be to promote the market economy as the best way of achieving prosperity and democracy. A light touch of government regulation is needed only to ensure fairness and legal certainty. Thus it embodies the “classical 19th-century Liberal ideas” which made Britain, and later the United States, a bulwark of capitalism.

Whatever the merits of this ideology in framing public policy for economics and finance, it is ill-suited to questions of personal behaviour.

In principle The Economist supports all autonomous action which is either harmless (in its view) or profitable. Hence, in recent years it has thrown its considerable prestige behind campaigns for the legalisation and regulation of drugs, pornography, prostitution, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage.

And this month it has taken up cudgels in favour of an international market in surrogate mothers and babies. “Carrying a child for someone else should be celebrated—and paid”, is the defiant headline of its editorial. Given the magazine’s influence, this is a significant development. What do you think of it? 

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Ooops! Sorry about that


I'm afraid that we are having a few issues with the software behind BioEdge. We've upgraded it, largely to ensure security -- which seems like a Very Very Good Idea in the light of what happened this week to Britain's National Health Service.

Unfortunately upgrades always have a few bugs. We are slowly working through them, but as we prepared this issue of the newsletter, we discovered a few glitches that we hadn't anticipated. So we ask for your patience. Hopefully we'll have them fixed up by next week. 

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Euthanasia in Belgium interviews


Euthanasia is such a controversial topic that it is dividing healthcare professionals and organisations. In Canada, some doctors are vigorously protesting moves to make effective referral for euthanasia mandatory. And in Belgium, a Catholic religious order seems to have split over whether its psychiatric hospitals should offer euthanasia for non-terminally-ill patients. Below we feature interviews with the main players in this drama: Brother Rene Stockman, the Rome-based head of the order who is fighting a change of policy, and Raf De Rycke, who helped to shape the new policy. 

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Even more developments in Belgian euthanasia


The Belgian media was abuzz this week with the news that the Catholic hospitals which provide a substantial portion of psychiatric beds will permit euthanasia for non-terminally-ill patients. It is an unprecedented reversal of their stand on end-of-life care.

Supporters of euthanasia, of course, were delighted. “The last relics of the paternalism of the shepherd have been replaced by individual self-determination," said one politician. Opponents, however, were puzzled and alarmed. Fifteen years after Belgium legalised euthanasia, it has become hard to find a hospital where is it not being practised. Read about it below. 

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Fake news and BioEdge


We’re back from the Easter holidays, which in Australia are far longer than elsewhere, thank goodness. To get back into the rhythm of things, we have published two articles about “fake news” and bioethics. One reports that prospective IVF parents in Mississippi discovered to their horror that they were twins separated at birth. This went around the world before some spoilsport blew the whistle on it. The other is an announcement by British billionaire Richard Branson that he is setting up a sperm bank for dyslexics. Branson being Branson, it’s hard to tell whether this is fake news or not, but I suspect that it is.

The problem with BioEdge, some readers tell us, is that everything sounds like fake news. This, of course, is not true; we take great care to check our sources. However, all too often the articles seem to have been composed in some gigantic facility manned by bad news elves.

In fact, when you read today’s lead story, “Euthanised organ donors could dramatically shorten waitlists in Belgium, say doctors”, I must concede that it does sound so implausible as to be fake. But it’s not a report from The Onion, but from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Go figure. 

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Khan Sheikhun


The civil war in Syria may have moved into a dangerous new stage. President Trump ordered a strike on a government air force base, blaming the regime for dropping sarin, a lethal chemical weapon, on a northern town. He announced his decision in an emotional speech:

"Assad choked out the lives of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of god should ever suffer such horror."

As everyone knows, there are no good guys in this appalling war. The attack on Khan Sheikhoun was just more spectacular than the daily slaughter of three here, a dozen there. If you consult the website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights or Syria Deeply, the headlines are enough to make anyone weep. One of the most distressing aspects of the conflict is the "weaponisation of healthcare" -- deliberately targeting medical personnel and facilities to terrorise the population. You can read about it below

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Do you remember the Zika virus?


Here’s something very odd. Back in 2015 terrifying news came from Brazil about an epidemic of microcephaly – babies born with very small heads and brain damage. It seemed to be associated with the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Neighbouring countries prepared for the spread of Zika with a sense of dread. Lobby groups urged relaxation of abortion restrictions.

But how often in the past six months have we heard about the Zika virus and microenphaly? A graph on Google trends shows that it has dropped off the media’s radar. With good reason – there has been no epidemic of microcephaly. The experts expected 1,000 cases, but there were only about 100.

Nobody knows why this is. There is an association between Zika and microcephaly, but it must be more complicated than scientists first thought. An article in the NEJM this week reports the good and canvases a number of explanations. It may be that for microencephaly to occur, a woman needs to contract both Zika and Dengue fever.

Perhaps there is a lesson here – however bad the news is, DON'T PANIC!! In particular, there is no need to push for changes in abortion legislation before we know all the facts...

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The transhumanist project and personal autonomy


A number of the eminences of Silicon Valley are besotted with immortality. Google, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg are a just a few names amongst the many who want to do away with death, or at least add a few decades, or even a few hundred years, to their lifespans.

Even if this is achievable, is this desirable?

British sci-fi author and futurist Paul Graham Raven has written a blistering demolition of the transhumanist project. (Hat-tip to Wired.) It is basically a philosophy for selfish (and mostly white) rich guys, he suggests.

it turns out that technologies which extend, augment or otherwise improve human life are already here! You may have heard of some of them: clean water; urban sanitation; smokeless cooking facilities; free access to healthcare; a guaranteed minimum income; a good, free education. There are more – and you’d be surprised how many of them have been around in one form or another for decades, even centuries! But they’re unevenly distributed at the moment, so the first agenda item for all transhumanists should be looking for ways to get these technologies to everyone on the planet as soon as possible

But that is unlikely to happen. In their single-minded focus on maximising their own welfare, dedicated transhumanists are deaf to the needs of the society: “You look after yourself, I’ll look after me; what could be fairer than that?” Raven writes caustically. Come to think of it, this critique of personal autonomy could be applied to a number of other areas in bioethics. 

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